Memories survive from Great War Soldier: Eighty years after the slaughter ended, British veteran Douglas Thomson recalls life in the trenches and lessons of the war to end all wars.

November 07, 1998|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON -- Eighty years later, Douglas Thomson can still summon up the smells and sounds of World War I.

The military messenger who once ferried orders to British troops dug into trenches along the Western Front is now, at 100, one of the few survivors of a conflict that ended the old order and shaped modern Europe.

"Memories of trench life? What can one say -- the filth, the cold, the rats, the discomfort," Thomson says. "The only thing I say is the comradeship made everything endurable."

This is the time of year when men like Thomson look back on their lives, and when Europe pauses to honor those who fought.

The 80th anniversary of the end of World War I -- Nov. 11, 1918 -- will likely mark a last major reunion of the war's aging veterans. Some of the 200 or so British survivors will attend such ceremonies as tomorrow's Remembrance Sunday observance in London, when Queen Elizabeth II attends a service at the Cenotaph, Britain's national memorial to the "Glorious Dead." Some will trek to Europe's battlefields on Armistice Day -- Wednesday -- to mark war's end at the 11th hour on the 11th day.

The war to end all wars still echoes here, much as the Civil War still resonates in the American South. It was the horrific event that crushed a generation and reshaped Europe. More than 9 million soldiers were killed in fighting that raged from 1914 to 1918. The land was scarred by artillery bombardment, and chemical warfare was unleashed.

The war led to the destruction of four European empires and the collapse of monarchies, as countries sprouted up and maps were redrawn. France won, but at a fearful price of dead and wounded, a tragedy that would haunt the country for decades. Britain, a victor, was nearly bankrupted, its vast empire stretched to the limit. Germany, a loser, was devastated, millions killed, its industrial might stripped. And Russia, which pulled out of the war, endured its own revolution and the rise of communism.

British historian A. J. P. Taylor wrote 35 years ago: "The First World War cut deep into the consciousness of modern man. It reshaped the political order in Europe. Its memorials stand in every town and village. Half a century afterwards the experiences of it are not stilled."

For those veterans like Thomson, the war is omnipresent. With a firm handshake and strong voice, Thomson welcomes a visitor to his room at a nursing home.

"The answer to life is moderation in everything, including whiskey," he says with a wink. And then he mentions that he took a trip last year -- to Zimbabwe.

Thomson's life tumbles out in words, and faded pictures from a carefully preserved album. Born in London in 1898 -- when Queen Victoria still ruled an empire -- Thomson traveled throughout his childhood, as his father pursued a career as a journalist and print shop owner. Attending school in Edinburgh, he was part of an officer training corps.

Thomson thumbs a tiny picture of himself, when he was 17 1/2 years old and smiling, newly enlisted in the Honorable Artillery Company, which was established in 1537 by Henry VIII.

"At the end of 1915, I decided to join the army," he says. "I didn't tell my father. I told the recruiters that I was 19 1/2 ."

By the autumn of 1916, he was overseas, eventually serving in Belgium, France and, at war's end, Italy.

Later, he would serve with an army of occupation in Austria, skiing away the winter of 1918-1919.

"I was one of eight battalion runners," he says. "We maintained communications with the trenches. I'd take messages from headquarters up to the line. Once they made us runners, they kept us as runners."

Actually, he says, he did a lot of walking to the front. Patience, and a good memory, were required to find the way to the right trench in a war that was virtually at a stalemate.

"The mud was unbelievable," he says. "It was 2 feet thick. The conditions were awful. You were never dry. Your feet were soaking wet. And the Germans had very big guns."

No one was prepared for the carnage. It's one thing to read a casualty list in a newspaper, Thomson says, and quite another to see the faces of the dead up close. He recalls seeing 28 of his fallen comrades lined up on the ground, awaiting burial. He says more than 500 men were killed in his battalion during the years he fought.

Surprisingly, he recalls firing a gun only once in anger.

"I must have gotten off 100 rounds on a machine gun," he says. "I don't know who I might have killed."

But what he yearns to recall are the friends he made like William Creswell, known to all as Cressie. The two men shared a tent during training in 1916, became runners together, and remained friends until Creswell's death in 1990.

"All my friends are dead," Thomson says.

After the war, Thomson studied electrical engineering and went to India to work on major power projects.

There, he met and wooed his wife, Peggy. They were married for 30 years until her death in 1962, the year he retired. Thomson has four children, 10 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.

The French government wants to give him its Legion of Honor medal, but Thomson says he won't bother with it, unless the ceremony takes place at his residence.

He says that as far as he is concerned, "Remembrance Day doesn't mean anything to me. It's the friends that count."

Still, the so-called father of the Honorable Artillery Company shows up each year at St. Botolph's Church to lay a wreath of poppies, symbols of war and remembrance. The fields of Flanders were covered with poppies.

"For some reason or another, I've survived," he says. "I think the chap above doesn't want to see me."

Pub Date: 11/07/98

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